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California Voters Don't Want Dire Cuts; They Want Leaders to Get It Right

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Devastating cuts to schools and colleges. Aid to people with disabilities slashed. Thousands of firefighters and police officers cut loose. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened these dire consequences if the voters turned their backs on his special-election ballot measures. With the decisive defeat of Propositions 1A through 1E on Tuesday, he appears intent on making good on his promises.

Not so fast. Today should be about starting over, not teaching the voters a lesson. Before the governor and the Legislature take a meat ax to the budget, they should take a breath, accept responsibility for the voters' judgment and try to get it right this time.

Give the voters credit. Although the governor and his allies outspent opponents about 10 to 1, California's electorate made a reasonable judgment that the budget package was the wrong prescription for the state's fiscal ills. Years of fiscal chaos and repeated broken pledges to balance the books left the voters wary of a new set of election promises.

It was clear the ballot measures would not solve California's chronic budget woes -- we would be facing a $15 billion deficit even if the propositions had passed. And it didn't help that the budget deal gave billions in tax breaks to big corporations while working families were stuck with a bundle of regressive taxes and cuts to education and other critical services.

There will be ample debate about why voters from across the political spectrum rejected Sacramento's proposed budget fix, but there is no credible evidence that they wanted to see vital investments and programs hit with $21 billion worth of Draconian cuts. Recent polls show that voters oppose cuts in law enforcement, public schools, colleges, and health care for low-income families and the disabled by more than 2-to-1.

If there is a disconnect between what the voters want and what they'll pay for -- as some claim -- it's in no small part because over the past six years, they've been fed a cynical diet of budget borrowing and accounting maneuvers that have skirted any meaningful discussion of the choices confronting the state.

So what are the governor and the Legislature to do? How Sacramento reacts in the coming days will determine whether the trust of Californians in their state's leadership can be restored and whether the state can get on the road to recovery. Here are some principles to light the path.

• Protect the investments most important to the voters and the state's future. There's no way the budget can be balanced with cuts alone, and there's no doubt we can find fair ways to bring in revenue. Increase tax compliance. Wipe out senseless corporate tax loopholes, including the $2.5 billion in annual giveaways that were part of the budget deal. Update the tax code. If AIG was too important to fail, then certainly our public schools can be spared.

• Try a little fairness. Resolutions to crises require shared sacrifice, but almost all the recent tax burdens and cuts have fallen on working families and the most vulnerable. Ask the oil companies that got a free pass in the latest budget deal to kick in some of their record profits before asking the guy at the Costco checkout stand who's already struggling to make ends meet to take another hit.

• Show the voters that Sacramento is serious about making state government run more efficiently. Efficiencies alone won't close the budget gap, but a real effort to make state government more accountable will yield long-term results. Lay out significant reforms to the prison system. Set productivity goals. Eliminate some of the commissions that offer full-time pay for part-time work.

• Most of all, craft a plan that shows the people of this state how we're eventually going to climb out of this mess. Level with them about the magnitude of the challenge facing us, but don't threaten their communities, schools and families with avoidable harm. And go back to the ballot box only when there are real reforms - such as replacing the two-thirds vote to adopt a budget with a simple majority vote - to put before the voters.

It's been too long since a governor and legislative leaders have spoken directly, plainly and honestly about the level of investments we need for California's future, the fairest way to pay for those investments and the real reforms required to right the fiscal ship. As of Tuesday, the case still had not been made. It's time to get back to work.

Phil Angelides served as California state treasurer from 1999-2007 and was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2006.

This piece was originally published in The Sacramento Bee.